The Missing Slate | Speaking of markets and readership, The Missing Slate has been deliberating moving into print; maybe an annual anthology of the best of the year’s issues. What are your thoughts on that?
Ilona Yusuf | Ah yes, best of everything is a great idea. And it doesn’t have to be every year; it could be every other year. I mean somebody told me for instance, [that] the Life’s Too Short journal – I don’t know whether this is true – but I was told that there were many, many entries, and the reason they didn’t do another one was that the quality was just not good. And part of the reason for that is that people think that they can write but they’re not ready to do the background reading, and it’s not just about the background reading, it’s about having a sensibility about reading and reading constantly, and looking for authors that you would read. You don’t copy those people but they’re your models. You have to read, without that you’re not going to be able to produce good writing. And then there is good editing, because people write and they don’t realize where the writing could be tighter. That entails going over and over your work and then distancing yourself from it and then going back to it. So without that you can’t… there is a craft involved, it doesn’t just happen like that. You start with something but you have to tear away the extra details.
The Missing Slate | We’re curious on how you think Pakistani poetry fares internationally.
Ilona Yusuf | Oh I think it’s absolutely at par. You know the thing is that some of the poetry is very sophisticated and to be quite frank, with the Vallum collection so many of these poets are a part of the “diaspora” section, because there had to be a large diaspora section because I think the magazine had some funding from the Canada Council of the Arts, so it had to have Canadian representation. By good luck, some of the poets who are from here have recently migrated to Canada – Sadaf Halai, Sahar Rizvi [et. All] – these are poets who grew up in Pakistan, were educated in Pakistan, they spent several years… they must be in their twenties, so that means they had some working years here as well. They were writing very well before they went to Canada. It’s not like they fine-honed their skills in Canada; they were writing here. And I would say that they’re excellent poets, they’re poetry is as good as any we read from abroad. Poetry is poetry you know; it’s either good or bad.
The Missing Slate | What would your advice be to young poets?
Ilona Yusuf | Read like anything.
The Missing Slate | Aside from reading…
Ilona Yusuf | [Laughs] Keep going back to your work and edit, try and eliminate any extra detail because what people very often do is to add detail or overwrite, or state things, you don’t state things; poetry is about picture and that picture conjures several things rather than just one. It’s the image, it’s not saying that this is the city of greens, its evoking that atmosphere of the city of green.
The Missing Slate | Finally (for real this time), who is your favorite poet or rather, which poet influenced you most?
Ilona Yusuf | I started with… now this is the sixties… this Puffin book of verse and I read it so much it was in tatters, and this was when I was seven. Poetry came to me very early. And these were a mixture of new poets and older poets. I used to love Hilaire Belloc, because of the rhythm, and then when I was in college I loved Dylan Thomas, Neruda, these are some of my favorite poets. Faiz I’ve read a lot. Oh and I read a lot of Chinese poetry as well. You know… all kinds of poetry because I think you need to read a lot. And American poetry as well, because they’re more modern and because I write open-ended verse, and I guess that’s what appealed to me. Rhyme did not appeal to me but over the last few years, I’ve been a member of a poetry group and that’s been amazing because some people only want to read classical poetry and I wouldn’t read classical poetry as a conscious decision, but hearing it has actually benefitted me, because then I will go back and read something or reread that same poem later. Those things do matter, you know, because you have to go back to history.
Photo Credit: Ilona Yusuf